My four-year-old son, Charlie, loves his older brother. I mean, loves. He follows him everywhere, prefers the same toys, games, TV shows, clothes, books – you get my drift. But it’s gotten to the point that Charlie doesn’t know what he likes. Example: As his birthday approached this year, I asked what character he’d like on his cake. Charlie paused, thought for a moment, then asked his older brother who his favourite superhero should be.
According to Alyson Schafer, Toronto psychotherapist, parenting expert, and author of Ain’t Misbehavin’, it’s an entirely common sibling phenomenon. “There’s a very small percentage of kids who won’t ‘like’ their older brother or sister during those formative years, but the majority will look up to, adore and often emulate an older sibling,” she says.
Not surprisingly, you can see the fascination almost immediately. “Mom or Dad are trying to get the baby to smile and while they may have to work for one, along comes an older sibling who swoops in and right away has this easy rapport with the baby that even parents don’t have,” Alyson says.
This affinity can last for years. “How long children will take on the behaviour of their older sibling is very individual,” says Alyson, “but in terms of why it progresses, it’s basically a child looking at their older brother and sister and thinking, ‘they have a winning formula for life; they are my mentor’. The younger child is so impressed with how their older sibling does life that they decide to take on the same approach.”
Where things get potentially sticky is when the younger always defers to the older. While it’s normal and to be expected that copycat behaviours will be present, Alyson says parents should encourage their preschooler to individuate sooner than later. “For example, you’re standing in line at a bakery and you ask your younger child which treat he would like. He may look to his older sibling for advice, but this is where you can step in and say, ‘I’m asking what you would like, your brother will have his chance to choose in a minute.’ Same thing goes for movies or activities. Your older child may pipe right up and ask for her favourite, but in this case I’d ask her to be quiet so her younger sibling can choose this time.”
The bottom line? In the world of parenting issues, Alyson says sibling copycat syndrome is a relatively nice problem to have. It’s very rare that children have such low self-esteem that they can’t represent themselves or speak their minds with time, but should you worry there’s a budding issue, look for opportunities to let your child share their opinions and to foster their individuality. Lastly, she says to enjoy it. “Revel in the fact that your children are getting along. They could be trying to kill each other.”
Becoming a Unique Individual
- Make time for each child individually: Set aside 15 to 20 minutes daily to talk about what’s on their minds, and make a habit of telling them individually that you love him/her and are proud of their accomplishments in whatever they’re doing.
- Acknowledge opinions: Though they may come few and far between, if and when your younger child does chime in to share his or her thoughts, listen and encourage their older sibling to stay mum. The more children feel like their opinions matter, the more likely they will be to share them.
- Every so often, pass off decision making powers to your younger one: Older siblings tend to be anything but shy about speaking their mind when it comes to their wants and needs, which can leave little ones in the dust. By switching things up and letting younger siblings choose which movie to watch, what to eat for dinner or which game to play, you effectively encourage and grow their confidence.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.